Protests are nothing new here in the US. Many of them have, in recent years, been relatively peaceful. However, sometimes sensitive social issues are aggravated, or a peaceful protest is antagonized in such a way as to anger the participants. In either of these situations, what was once a peaceful protest can quickly devolve into an unlawful assembly.
California Penal Code 408 PC defines an unlawful assembly as two or more people assembling for the purpose of: doing something illegal or doing something legal but in a violent, boisterous, or tumultuous manner. In order for someone to be convicted of violating PC 408, a person has to willingly participate in an unlawful assembly while knowing that the assembly was unlawful. The first part of the law serves to protect people who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. If someone were to be driving or walking down the road, only to turn a corner and end up in the middle of an unlawful assembly, they would not be charged because they weren’t there on purpose. The second part of the law serves to protect those who are ignorant of what a protest should or should not entail. If someone can successfully prove that they didn’t realize they were participating in an unlawful assembly, they don’t need to worry about the consequences.
It’s important to note that the unlawful assembly doesn’t necessarily need to accomplish or destroy anything to be deemed illegal. If a group of people with torches and pitchforks showed up at the Mayor of Los Angeles’ house, it would more than likely be an unlawful assembly even though nothing was damaged and nobody was hurt.
Those who are unable to prove that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that they didn’t know the assembly was unlawful, will probably find themselves facing misdemeanor charges. Anyone convicted of violating PC 408 faces a maximum of 6 months in county jail. Generally, judges will sentence a defendant to less than 6 months in jail unless the person’s crimes are particularly serious. In many cases, a judge will sentence the defendant to probation instead of jail time.